It was in December 2003 that Bangaloreans first woke up to the idea of Airtel Bengaluru Habba (in those days – Bangalore Habba). As posters announcing the city’s new cultural festival dotted the landscape and street art spilled over onto the MG Road Boulevard, the idea of the Habba captured the city’s imagination.
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The vision behind the Habba says Padmini Ravi, Trustee of Artistes’ Foundation for the Arts (AFFA) that spearheads the event, has been "to provide aesthetic entertainment to a wide cultural, social and demographic cross-section of people. We wish to ensure that various art forms continue to have an impact on our culture and traditions."
That’s impression of other performers at the event as well. Legendary Indian saxophonist Dr Kadri Gopalnath says, ‘the Habba is like celebrating a festival that brings dance and music to the people."
Padmini adds, "It is a platform that exposes the young and old in our city to the fast disappearing traditions of our communities. The Habba is, perhaps, one of the only festivals of its kind that offers people from all walks of life the opportunity to experience performances by state, national, and international greats free of cost… We have lost an entire generation to television in the last 20 years. We hope that through this annual city festival we will bring the nuances of our rich culture and heritage back into the lives of people."
In this tradition, the Bengaluru Habba has returned annually over the last seven years. Padmini describes the evolution saying, "The Habba has evolved to be a movement to ensure that our city is a culture loving community. Over the years the format and kind of events that are a part of the Habba have changed and added more value to the whole festival. Besides just being a platform where people could come to be entertained by performances, the Habba today has several creative dialogues, critical appreciation sessions and communication workshops making it an educative festival as well."
Yet with limited passes to events that bring together a host of national performers across different venues in the city, does the Habba really reflect the essence of Bangalore? Kolkata based Jayashree Singh of PINKNOISE who performed at the International Jazz Festival at UB City says, "Performances like the Raghu Dixit reflected the city aspect of the festival. Yet art should not be geography or ethnicity specific and the Habba represents that. In fact this is also true of Bangalore as well, as it is home to people from around the country and the world. There is a need for more events like this even as India is becoming increasingly insular. We are a magical mix of cultures, and when a festival reflects that diversity, it’s fantastic."
For the audience too, the inclusive cosmopolitan character of the city finds its reflection in the Habba. Bangalorean and Marketing Communication Specialist Poornima Bharadwaj, who has followed the Habba over the years says, "It’s a good starting point for people who don’t know Bangalore. It brings together the finest parts of Bangalore culturally." She continues, "It’s the people that make Bangalore unique. When they come together at the Habba, you see the best of Bangalore."
Jasetha James, Wholistic Therapist and avid follower of cultural events within the city concurs, "I like the whole idea of a festival for a city. I was also impressed with the bringing together of music, arts and artifacts."
It’s a view that is also resonated by Hindustani Santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, who performed at the Airtel Bengaluru Habba. Sharma says, "Bangalore is known as the IT City, but it is also very culturally alive. The Habba represents this aspect of the city. It was a very satisfying audience to perform before a large audience at Chowdiah Memorial Hall." Sharma adds, "It’s a good effort to present different genres of music. This is what India needs."
This appreciation for Bangalorean audiences who go a long way in giving the festival its unique quality is echoed by Gopalnath and Jayashree as well. Jayashree says, "To play in Bangalore is a thing of joy. The audiences are great. It was also special to play at the Habba because we had never played there before. It was an incredible venue and the hospitality was wonderful as always."
Yet audiences visiting the Habba were sometimes less aware of the events here as compared to previous years. Jasetha says, "This time publicity was less. I did not see it around. We’ve lost older elements like the artist’s walkway on the boulevard. So while I like the Habba altogether, it would have been nice if it was more visible."
It’s a view also shared by organizations that participated in the Habba in previous times. They too believe the festival had greater involvement from Bangaloreans in its early years. Yet they are quick to add, "An initiative has been taken and we have to give them credit for that. It is tough and expensive to support so many groups and put together an event of this nature."
A similar view is voiced by prominent Bangalorean and Sahitya Academy awardee Dr K Y Narayanaswamy. He says, "I appreciate the concern and the concept. But it is not the Bangalorean’s habba. The venues are not regular public spaces. They are identified with the elite. So the habba reaches only the upper middle class and the intellectuals, but it should belong to everybody."
Looking ahead, Narayanaswamy says, "The Bangaluru Habba should be redefined through the cultural aspects of Bangalore. It needs to reflect the glories of Bangalore and percolate to a larger audience. Currently its impact is illusive. It is advertised in a few public places, but most people are not aware of it. The habba does not reach more than 5 per cent of its audience."
Another aspect to this debate is raised by senior journalist Zahid Javali, who has covered the habba since its inception. He says, "The event brings back the same performers every year. It should be a platform for new talent as well."
Yet what are the hurdles that must be overcome in organizing a cultural event that includes the aspirations of all Bangaloreans?
Padmini admits, "One of the biggest challenges we face in organising the Habba year after year is the raising of funds. The Habba today competes for sponsorships with Bollywood events and cricket. This being the case we depend greatly on our sponsors to help lay the foundation of our passion towards diverse forms of art, locally and globally."
Inspite of these many hurdles the Bengaluru Habba chugs along, bringing India to Bangalore and carrying Bangalore to the rest of the nation. Padmini says, "Year on year we have seen the number of people coming to the Habba increase. The city has welcomed artists locally and globally and they look forward to the Habba each year. This speaks of our success in achieving the vision on which the Airtel Bengaluru Habba was conceptualised. We try to promote new artists by providing them a platform. Every year till now we have supported around 1000 artists. We wish to sustain this number and support more such artists."
With an eye into the future, Padmini says, "Our dream is to make the city of Bengaluru one that celebrates arts like the way it is done in other major Indian cities. We have made a start and we need corporate bodies and citizens alike to come forward and share in our dream and vision."
Yet while Bangalorean’s have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of the habba, they are also many clearly cheering for an increase in inclusive measures that will go a long way in genuinely taking the spirit of the event back to the people. ⊕